Robert Morse: Tony-Winning Comic Actor

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Robert Morse, Tony-winning comic actor, dies at 90”:

Robert Morse, a puckish Tony-winning actor who starred in the Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” transformed into author Truman Capote for a celebrated one-man show, and delighted television viewers as the eccentric advertising executive Bert Cooper on “Mad Men,” died in Los Angeles.

A gaptoothed actor who retained a youthful energy well into retirement age, Mr. Morse became a Broadway sensation playing the beguiling schemer J. Pierrepont Finch, a window washer who rises to become chairman of the World Wide Wicket Co. in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Based on a satirical book by Shepherd Mead, the musical premiered in 1961 and ran for more than three years, winning a Pulitzer Prize and seven Tony Awards, including best actor in a musical for Mr. Morse.

Whether kissing up to the company president (Rudy Vallée), flirting with a secretary (Michele Lee) or shaving in front of a bathroom window while singing his signature tune, “I Believe in You,” Mr. Morse was “an exhilarating zany,” wrote theater critic Walter Kerr, “a sixteenth-century harlequin with a Dow-Jones soul.”

The show’s fans included President John F. Kennedy and his family — Mr. Morse fondly recalled hanging out at Hickory Hill, Robert F. Kennedy’s home in Virginia — and led to a 1967 movie adaptation featuring Mr. Morse and other original cast members.

The film was well received, but Mr. Morse struggled to translate his theatrical success to the screen, appearing in light comedies and bedroom farces that were largely ignored. He played a British poet learning the funeral business in “The Loved One” (1965), taught Walter Matthau how to cheat on his wife in “A Guide for the Married Man” (1967) and unwittingly drank Doris Day’s sleeping potion in “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” (1968).

He also got his own television show, starring with E.J. Peaker in the ABC musical comedy “That’s Life” (1968-69), which received an Emmy nomination and featured a procession of guest stars — George Burns, Goldie Hawn, Sid Caesar — but was canceled after one season.

Mr. Morse later said he battled depression and alcoholism while trying to branch into dramatic roles, frustrated at being typecast as a prankish star of musical comedies. To pay for his children’s education, he took jobs in dinner theater; for a time, he collected unemployment checks and spent his days playing golf.

“I was thought of as a musical comedy performer,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “a How-to-Succeed, sing-a-song, gaptoothed leprechaun, likable, fun to have at parties sober, but not an actor.”

That began to change when he starred as the late author Capote in “Tru,” delivering a monologue that was taken mainly from the words of the writer himself. Written and directed by Jay Presson Allen, the play opened in 1989, ran for 297 performances and earned Mr. Morse his second Tony. He received an Emmy Award after the production was filmed for “American Playhouse.”

“With his mad shopping-bag woman’s cackle and darting lounge lizard’s tongue, Mr. Morse so eerily simulates the public Capote of the pathetic waning years that he could be a Capote robot,” wrote New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. He added, “One is glad to have met up with this actor again, is impressed by his command of his technique and his audience, and is moved by the courage that has allowed him to return to a Broadway stage in so unlikely a vehicle.”

Mr. Morse had another late-career triumph with “Mad Men,” playing the dapper co-founder of Sterling Cooper, a fictional ad agency in the 1960s. As the zenlike Cooper, he collected modern art, embraced Japanese culture and was rarely seen wearing shoes. His character was given a gentle send-off midway through the seventh season, but returned to adman Don Draper (Jon Hamm) later that episode as a hallucination, performing a song-and-dance routine to the tune of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

The scene was a joyous reminder of Mr. Morse’s flair for musical comedy, even if some of his fellow cast members were unaware of his earlier work.

“The first day I went on the set, I thought I’d walked into the road company production of ‘How to Succeed,’ ” he said in 2014. Walking through the aisles, he sang “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” one of the musical’s best-known songs. “Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because they’re all so damned young!

“To be fair,” he continued, “I look more like Rudy Vallée’s boss Biggley than J. Pierrepont Finch now.”

Robert Alan Morse was born in Newton, Mass. His father owned a movie-theater chain and his mother was a classically trained pianist. Like Capote, Mr. Morse said he shared a sense of growing up an outcast in a family that considered him, as his character put it in “Tru,” “a sort of two-headed calf.”

Encouraged by one of his schoolteachers, he focused on theater, traveling to New Hampshire and making his professional debut in a 1949 production of “Our Town.” He served in the Navy during the Korean War and later settled in New York, training at the American Theatre Wing and auditioning for the role of a merchant’s apprentice in Thornton Wilder’s comedy “The Matchmaker.”

Mr. Morse had few credits to his name, aside from an uncredited role as a wounded sailor in “The Proud and the Profane,” a recently completed war movie. When the play’s director asked about his experience, he began to talk about the film before he was interrupted by his agent — who declared that Mr. Morse had just finished a major movie with William Holden and Deborah Kerr. “Period,” Mr. Morse recalled.

“I went home; my agent called and said, ‘You have a Broadway show.’ ”

“The Matchmaker” opened in 1955 and ran for more than a year, leading to a national tour and a 1958 film version in which Mr. Morse reprised his role. (The play also served as the basis for the musical “Hello, Dolly!”)

Over the next two years, Mr. Morse received Tony nominations for the backstage comedy “Say, Darling” and “Take Me Along,” a musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play “Ah, Wilderness.” He was also nominated for “Sugar,” a musical version of the cross-dressing film comedy “Some Like It Hot,” and returned to Broadway at age 85 to appear in a revival of “The Front Page.”

By then he was increasingly working in television, with credits that ranged from Grandpa in the TV movie “Here Come the Munsters” (1995) to journalist Dominick Dunne in “The People v. O.J. Simpson” (2016), part of the FX anthology series “American Crime Story.” He also did voice work for children’s shows, including as the title character in the stop-motion Christmas special “Jack Frost” and Santa Claus on “Teen Titans Go!”

His marriage to Carole D’Andrea, a “West Side Story” actress, ended in divorce. In 1989, he married Elizabeth Roberts.

Mr. Morse said that while he loved musical theater, playing Capote fulfilled a dream of getting “a dramatic role that touches every part of you.” But he resented being asked about parallels between him and the character, as he had when he played roles like the musician Jerry, who dresses as a woman to escape gangsters in “Sugar.”

“No matter what I do, people want it to hook in — drinking or women’s clothing or male/female identity,” he said in 1990. “They want to know, ‘What are your secrets?’ I say, ‘Hey, just like yours. I got the same ones.’ ”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

Also see the New York Times obit by Robert Berkvist headlined “Robert Morse, Impish Tony-Winning Comedy Star, Is Dead at 90.” The opening grafs:

Robert Morse, whose impish, gaptoothed grin and expert comic timing made him a Tony-winning Broadway star as a charming corporate schemer in the 1961 musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” who later won another Tony for his eerily lifelike portrait of the writer Truman Capote in “Tru,” and who capped his long career with a triumphant return to the corporate world on the television series “Mad Men,” died on Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles.

Small in stature but larger than life as a performer, Mr. Morse was still a relative newcomer to the stage when he took Broadway by storm in “How to Succeed.” Directed (and partly written) by Abe Burrows, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, and based on a book by Shepherd Mead, the show, a broad satire of the business world, was set in the headquarters of the World Wide Wicket Company, ruled by its peevish president, J.B. Biggley (Rudy Vallee).

The plot revolved around the determined efforts of an ambitious young window washer named J. Pierrepont Finch, played with sly humor by Mr. Morse, to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. Among the show’s many high points was the washroom scene in which Mr. Morse delivered a heartfelt rendition of the song “I Believe in You” while gazing rapturously into a mirror.

“How to Succeed” ran for more than 1,400 performances and won seven Tony Awards, including one for Mr. Morse as best actor in a musical, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama. A 1967 film adaptation, with Mr. Morse and Mr. Vallee repeating their roles, was a hit as well, and the show has been revived on Broadway twice.

Mr. Morse always seemed more at home on the stage than on the screen. Five years before “How to Succeed” opened, he made an uncredited and virtually unseen Hollywood debut (his face was swathed in bandages) in the World War II drama “The Proud and Profane.” With no other screen roles in the offing, he returned to New York, where he had earlier studied acting with Lee Strasberg.

Soon he was auditioning for the director Tyrone Guthrie and given his first Broadway role, in “The Matchmaker,” Thornton Wilder’s comedy about a widowed merchant’s search for a new wife. Ruth Gordon played the title role, and Mr. Morse and Arthur Hill played clerks in the merchant’s shop. Mr. Morse would reprise the role in a 1958 film adaptation.

Mr. Morse’s Broadway career continued with the comedy “Say, Darling” (1958), in which he played an eager young producer, and “Take Me Along” (1959), a musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s play “Ah, Wilderness!,” in which he was a doubt-ridden adolescent, Walter Pidgeon his sympathetic father and Jackie Gleason his hard-drinking uncle.

Then came Mr. Morse’s star-making turn in “How to Succeed.”

His success in that show led to movie offers, but not to movie stardom; he rarely had a screen vehicle that fit him comfortably. “The parts I could play,” he observed to The Sunday News of New York in 1965, “they give to Jack Lemmon.”…

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